ARLINGTON, V.A. — As Carl Hagelin waits to take part in an upcoming drill at the Washington Capitals informal skate on Monday, he scoops up a puck on the blade of his stick. Looking through his oversized, tinted aviator visor, he watches the puck as he juggles it by the boards. He manages six in a row before it falls to the ice, and when the whistle blows for his turn in drills, he jumps right in, full speed ahead, not holding back.
Going back a few months, getting to this point seemed unlikely for No. 62. Not impossible, but unlikely. On March 1, Hagelin was taking part in the final competition drill of practice when a stick caught him up high. It went under his controversial tilted visor at the time and through his left eye, rupturing his choroid. And though it didn’t impact the retina, it did lead to a permanent loss in some of his vision and took away his depth perception.
Hagelin underwent two eye surgeries and didn’t return for another game or practice, though he did skate on his own. The devastating injury did threaten his career, but he remained optimistic and eager to continue his NHL career. So, over the summer, he took part in eye training and focused on his recovery, and when informal skates started, he took the ice in a non-contact jersey. He has since been cleared for contact and is engaging in board battles, scoring goals in scrimmages and showcasing his speed and aggressiveness on the forecheck.
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“He has a very, very positive attitude. I think it would be easy in a situation to maybe get down on himself a little bit and stuff. But he’s been there for a while, he knows the game and it’s very, very good for me as a young player to see this. This guy just battles through it and hopes to recover. Same thing with all the injured guys… they’re all working super hard to get back at it, which is something i don’t take for granted.”
From the looks of it, Hagelin is a full participant, and if he passes his physical, he could very well be on the ice for training camp and even play sooner rather than later. And though his comeback story is impressive, it will have major implications for the Capitals and force their hand quite a bit.
Right now, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and barely any vacancies on the main roster. With Hagelin coming back, he would surely slot back in alongside Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway and take back his top spot on the penalty kill. That would, however, lead to questions for the team’s bottom-6 and placement for certain players.
Washington re-signed Marcus Johansson to a one-year deal this offseason, and he was an option to take Hagelin’s place on that fourth line or even be a third-line winger. All the while, Lars Eller and Connor McMichael are battling for the third-line center role, and whoever loses could also shift to the wing on the fourth line if Johansson does indeed move up to the third-line wing. However, with Hagelin back, that would eliminate a pivotal role there and leave either Johansson, Eller or McMichael as the odd man out.
It’s hard to imagine Eller being a healthy scratch, let alone Johansson. McMichael is still young and on the verge, though the team does want to see him get more ice time and a bigger role this year, so scratching him wouldn’t be the best idea. Taking that into account, a move may need to be made.
Going off of that, Hagelin would come off the long-term injured reserve, where he, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson currently sit. That means his $2.75 million salary would come back on the books, leaving the Capitals over the salary cap. This, in turn, may also lead to a move. Who would go, though, remains unclear.
Given the situation, an Eller trade may make the most sense. He is coming off a challenging season that saw him struggle with adversity, COVID and consistency, and with Washington wanting McMichael to get more of that ice time and also needing to clear space, shipping out Eller’s $3.5 million salary may be the correct call.